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3 new novels grapple with questions of mortality

What would you do if you were told you were doomed? How would you live the rest of your life? Characters thousands of years apart try to grapple with what comes after a death sentence in two of the novel's in this week's fiction roundup. In our third, a 35-year-old starts seeing his dead wife in unexpected places. No, it's not paranormal fiction: It's Anne Tyler.

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1. 'The Beginner's Goodbye,' by Anne Tyler

The Beginner's Goodbye might be the first Anne Tyler novel to feature a ghost, but most of her main characters have been haunted.

“The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted,” Aaron Woolcott says in the opening line of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's 19th novel. Aaron sees Dorothy at random spots around Baltimore, at the farmers' market or as he's walking down the street.

Dorothy doesn't come back until several months after her death, and when she first appears, Aaron is afraid to ask any questions, in case she leaves again. “I am an atheist,” he says. “Having her here in the first place had already shaken up more preconceptions than I could easily absorb.”

After a childhood illness left him with a stammer, a twisted arm, and a limp, Aaron spent his formative years with his mom and older sister hovering over him anxiously. In college, “I became a kind of pet project for the aspiring social workers that all the young women of college age seemed to be. They associated my cane with, who knows, old war wounds or something.”

But when the older Dr. Dorothy Rosales doesn't fuss over his crippled right arm, Aaron pursues her with singleminded determination and in the face of apparent indifference. To paraphrase “Jerry Maguire,” she had him at “Huh.”

Of course, after deliberately choosing a wife who wouldn't cosset him, Aaron then spent their marriage shoving her away and simultaneously resenting the fact that she didn't take care of him.

After a garden-variety argument about where the Triscuits might have got to, Dorothy is killed when a tree falls on their house. Aaron's initial method of coping is to live in the debris and ignore the situation. (Passivity is, of course, a hallmark of a Tyler hero. They don't generally grab chainsaws and get to work.)

Aaron doesn't run to a psychiatrist or neurologist. As he explains, “Call to mind a person you've lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public.… You wouldn't question your sanity, because you couldn't bear to think this wasn't real. And you certainly wouldn't demand explanations, or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to touch this person, not even if you'd been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away again.”

In a suitably quirky career move, Aaron is the publisher of a vanity press that also puts out a series of how-to books, like the Dummies series, but “more dignified,” “a set of instruction manuals who stated goal was to skim the surface”: “The Beginner's Spice Cabinet,” The Beginner's Monthly Budget,” and their bestseller, “The Beginner's Colicky Baby.”

Aaron, it will not be lost on readers, also has been living life by skimming the surface.

With its emphasis on guide books – to living instead of travel, this time – and its grieving, prematurely-old narrator, “The Beginner's Goodbye” has more than a little in common with “The Accidental Tourist.” Aaron even moves back in with his eccentric older sister, Nandina, the only woman in America who wears a housecoat during the second Bush presidency (or maybe the first, too, for that matter.) Those who have read “Tourist” will know who will be paired off with whom before 50 pages have passed.

Tyler's characters reside in a Baltimore that exists separate from pop culture and, to a large extent, the passage of time since the early 1960s. Aaron and I grew up in roughly the same era – although he reads more like 55 than 35 – and the occasional pop culture reference just served to jar me out of the narrative.

But I've had a soft, mushy spot for Tyler ever since my favorite English teacher handed me “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” in high school. “The Beginner's Goodbye” isn't up there with, say, “Saint Maybe,” still my favorite of her books. But in its slender, melancholy way, it offers enough of her classic hallmarks to inspire affection in long-time fans.

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